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At Thompson trial, defense questions ex-detective about his handling of initial probe.

A key witness in the double homicide trial of Robert Thompson didn't come forward at first with information about seeing Thompson covered in blood -- even after she had been interviewed several times by law enforcement, a former sheriff's detective said in court.

Also, a defense attorney asked the former detective critical questions about the sheriff's department's handling of the initial investigation into the deaths of 12-year-old Jodi Ragsdale and 15-year-old Sheila Carter.

Those were some of the flash points that emerged Monday in the trial of Thompson, 42, accused of bludgeoning Ragsdale and Carter to death. Their bodies were found off a rural Merced County road in Cressy on Dec. 13, 1986.

Defense attorney Randy Thomas asked former sheriff's detective Hector Garibay, now 70, who investigated the girls' deaths after their bodies were found, about interviews he conducted with Thompson's ex-girlfriend, Becky Tilton, in the wake of the deaths.

Last week, Tilton testified that she had seen Thompson come through the window of the Gurr Road mobile home they shared with blood on his hands, clothes and face during the dawn hours of Dec. 13, 1986.

Garibay testified that he had interviewed Tilton between three and six times in the aftermath of the girls' death, starting in January 1987. During those interviews, however, Garibay said she never mentioned anything about seeing Thompson with blood on him.

Thomas wondered why Tilton did not immediately volunteer the information to investigators. "It was only after Becky (Tilton) was given time," Thomas said.

Given the importance of Tilton's testimony in the case, Thomas also questioned Garibay about why none of the initial interviews he conducted with Tilton were taped. "Why didn't you tape her like you've taped everybody else? You've got boxes of tapes," Thomas asked. Garibay said he didn't know, at the time, that Thompson and Tilton had been living together.

Garibay also testified that investigators didn't find any evidence of burned clothing after visiting the mobile home where Thompson and Tilton lived. Tilton testified last week that Thompson has burned his clothes in a barrel on the property after the crimes occurred.

Thomas also asked Garibay, who worked on the investigation into the girls deaths for one year, about the alleged murder weapon -- a car jack investigators said was found in the white Mercury Comet that allegedly belonged to Thompson.

Sgt. James Court of the Atwater Police Department testified last week that he found the car jack in the Comet's trunk after conducting a search warrant on the home of Thompson's half brother in January 1987.

Garibay said he was unaware of that search warrant. He also he was also unaware of the jack until seeing the Comet in the sheriff's department's auto confinement yard.

"For 12 months nobody told you that the Atwater Police Department had discovered this alleged murder weapon?" Thomas asked.

"That's right," Garibay replied.

Jurors also heard testimony from Maximilian "Eddie" Vargas, owner of the 1978 Chevy Malibu that prosecutors allege Thompson was driving about the time the girls were killed.

Under questioning from prosecutor Dave Moranda, Vargas, 51, who described himself as Thompson's best friend at the time of the deaths, said he couldn't remember loaning his car to Thompson.

In response to questions from Moranda, Vargas said he couldn't recall ever changing the tires on the Malibu or having a conversation with Thompson about seeing the girls before their deaths.

Vargas attributed his poor memory to his previous heavy addiction to drugs, including methamphetamine. Although he remembered few details, he accused law enforcement of coercing him during their investigation into the case.

"I felt I was led to say what I said, whatever I said back then, from the police department," Vargas said. "Bobby's been a friend of mine forever and a day. I don't believe he did that. I don't believe it today. And all these other questions you want to ask me, I don't remember."

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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